Hard rockers Norma Jean
By Andy Argyrakis, Senior Music Editor, GospelMusicChannel.com
Since 1995, the Vans Warped Tour has been the summer epicenter of alternative music, kick starting the careers of Fall Out Boy, All-American Rejects, Incubus, My Chemical Romance, Limp Bizkit and Blink-182 (to name a few), while simultaneously reviving punk rock legends like Green Day, Rancid, Billy Idol and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. The all-day event boasts a remarkably diverse line-up, backed by loads of extracurricular activities, such as skateboarding, sumo wrestling, hair cutting and browsing mounds of band merchandise.
The Road to Respect
Generally regarded as one of mainstream's hottest summer events, the roster has expanded to include faith-based bands, starting with MXPX at the turn of the decade, as well as Five Iron Frenzy, Mae, Slick Shoes, Underoath, Mute Math, Thrice and Zao in subsequent years. The 2008 edition is no exception, with everyone from pop/punkers Relient K to hard rockers Norma Jean, the heavy-handed August Burns Red, robotic rockers Family Force 5, the increasingly artistic Anberlin and the eclectic/alternative sounds of The Classic Crime falling right alongside secular superstars like Angels & Airwaves, Gym Class Heroes, Matisyahu, M.I.A., Story of the Year and Pennywise.
"I think our relationships with Warped are probably stronger now because we've had quite a few acts that have done well over the years who've helped solidify our presence," says Chad Johnson, director of A&R for Tooth & Nail (the label group that includes Solid State and BEC Recordings). "But I think every year it's the same struggle where [organizers] get hit up with hundreds if not thousands of submissions and they have to wade through them [and pick the top choices]. For us, it's about letting them know what our priorities are and what we're focusing on and hoping they actually like how it sounds!"
According to Johnson, the selection process originates with Warped founder Kevin Lyman, who attributes his decision to album sales and personal preference, signing off on each act he deems artistically credible and likely to connect with an audience. Given the Tooth & Nail family's loyal fan base in Christian communities and a growing presence in the mainstream, several groups on its roster have been recognized, particularly those on their way to breaking fresh artistic territory, regardless of the faith factor that sometimes polarizes public perception.
"I'd say [Warped's openness to faith-based bands] is probably directly attributed to Kevin's philosophy that he wants anybody to play his festival and doesn't want to shun any style or genre or belief system," adds Johnson. "So I'd say that's why there's such a diverse roster of artists on the tour because the idea is you wouldn't want to pigeonhole anyone either way."
Breaking Down Barriers
Though previous players on the Tooth & Nail Tour, The Classic Crime regularly performs in mainstream settings and doesn't consider itself a Christian band, but rather an act with some members of faith that strive for excellence, regardless of the audience. Given its artful amalgamation of angular guitars, contagious choruses and introspective lyrics, the group's had no trouble winning over fans of any association, despite occasionally experiencing flack from being associated with the religious marketplace.
"Unfortunately the Christian rock stigma can be an ugly beast that displays negativity to people in the mainstream," observes The Classic Crime frontman Matt MacDonald. "They think 'I don't want to be preached at or judged' or 'what a bunch of hypocrites,' which is kind of the consensus we found playing in the secular market. It's a sad thing and that's kind of the reason why we don't really play the [Christian] scene very often…But I think this year just like many past years on Warped have been filled with good music from people from all walks of life where each side of every story is represented."
After warming up with a few dates on last year's Warped Tour, Relient K is also jumping aboard for a much more extensive run this summer. The group's been no stranger to crossover appeal thanks to a split record deal with Gotee and Capitol, often citing P.O.D., Switchfoot and Sixpence None the Richer as catalysts for making those inroads much smoother.
"I think the first year on Warped we really didn't know what to expect and thought people might throw stuff at us," offers frontman Matt Thiessen with a laugh, noting the difference between an easily accepting Christian crowd and a sometimes less-than-accepting Warped audience. "But I think the culture's changed enough where a band that's admittedly singing about things that aren't exactly the most popular trends on this tour are pretty much accepted. I think [faith-based] bands have gotten so much better over the last ten years and I've said it a million times over on this tour – the good stuff always seems to rise to the top."
Growing Tougher Through Tests
One little-known tidbit about the event – there's usually a weekly Bible study available to band and crew members. Often times these meetings are led by faith-based players, though anyone on the tour is welcome to attend regardless of religion. Johnson notes that Lyman has been especially attentive to making sure space is always available for participants and that he's attended in the past, along with several other acts who might not have previously been exposed to scripture.
However, this setting also proved to be a testing ground on occasion, such as a session hosted by the Underoath guys that found some opposition from Fat Mike, famed frontman for punk mainstays NOFX. "Most people don't know about it because it's not really highly publicized, but I think the most highly publicized moment was when Fuse TV showed clips of Fat Mike asking questions of the Underoath guys," Johnson continues. "He was basically intrigued about the whole thing, though that was also the year he was sort heckling Underoath over their faith and calling them out on it. He wasn't really picking on them, but sort of testing them. Any time someone challenges what a Christian believes, they're forced to dig in the word a little more and figure out some answers and I would say that kind of thing turns someone into an even stronger believer."
Impacting with Art and Actions
As for breaking beyond the Christian bubble and interacting with people from any walk of life, Thiessen's suggests the experience at Warped isn't as troublesome as it might sound to more conservative listeners. "Everybody always asks 'are you worried?' and we're like, 'it's not like it's a huge deal.' It's like going to college where there are different things around you, but it's up to you to just be yourself and not conform to something you don't agree with…And every day we have kids coming up to us saying that they've never heard us before but thought the show was really cool. We're one of the only bands with a piano and I think people walk by and see it's not the same as everybody else and might be interesting."
If anything, the insanity of the Warped Tour schedule can sometimes make times of personal prayer a challenge for Christians on the outing. Each band performs a different time slot every date so no one band is always stuck with an unappealing hour (such as being the opening act). "So far we've only been on it for a week and the first week is always the roughest because you're trying to get adapted to the new schedule," admits Jake Schultz, bassist for Solid State signees Norma Jean. "One of the most challenging things is actually sitting down and doing devotions because the times are so flip-flopped and this is definitely not a 9–5 schedule."
Even so, members are committed to living out their faith throughout daily interaction, whether that means putting 100% into their set (which Schultz describes as "a giant T-Rex that makes really good music") or interacting with concertgoers at the end of the day, if only for a few moments. "We rarely get the chance to dive in deep with fans, mostly just a quick 'you guys were awesome' or 'we've seen you seven times,'" he notices. "But every once in a while we get a comment about how our band may have changed their lives or how a song did something for them, which is always super encouraging."
About the Writer
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based entertainment writer/photographer who appears in the Chicago Tribune, Illinois Entertainer, Daily Journal, Concert Livewire, Hear/Say Magazine and Image Chicago (to name few). His record label writing credits include Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Curb, EMI and Universal, with additional photo credits for Fuse TV, Live Nation, Nikon, Pollstar, Celebrity Access, Paste Magazine, MTV.com and Vibe.com. He's also the author/narrator of "Access Matthews" (an audio CD tracing the career of Dave Matthews Band) and spends considerable time on tour, including outings with Arlo Guthrie, The Guess Who, Madina Lake (on Linkin Park's Projekt Revolution) and Gospel Music Channel's very own "Gospel Dream" (where he served as season one judge).